BOSTON — The Nets ended 2017 showing unmistakable signs of progress and competitiveness, but they still are in search of the consistency necessary to become an upper-level team.
They hung tough to the end of their New Year’s Eve game with the Celtics but ultimately learned a lesson about execution, defense and rebounding from the Eastern Conference leaders in a 108-105 loss at TD Garden.
The Nets overcame an early 13-point deficit to take a brief lead at 63-61 on DeMarre Carroll’s layup with 9:43 left in the third quarter. But after committing only one first-half turnover, they had three that fueled a 12-1 Celtics run that restored a 79-68 cushion.
The Celtics’ lead reached 14 points in the fourth quarter, but the Nets moved within 105-103 on Quincy Acy’s three-pointer with 16.7 seconds to play. When Marcus Smart missed the second of two foul shots a moment later, the Nets had a chance to send the game to overtime, but Spencer Dinwiddie missed a long three-pointer and the Celtics controlled the rebound.
“I think he could have gotten closer; I think he could have curled tighter,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said of Dinwiddie’s shot. “That was the play for him to come off that screen. It was longer than we wanted, but it was an open catch-and-shoot. I told him to take it. I wish it was a little closer.”
Dinwiddie said the Celtics surprised him by showing a zone defense for the first time in the game. “They came out in a zone, so it kind of pushed the catch back,” he said. “I just rushed it based on that. When I caught it, I didn’t realize how open I was because of the zone look. I assumed somebody was going to be there. I was prepared to shoot a contested shot, and I rushed it.”
Still, a win over the Heat on Friday in Miami followed by a competitive game against Boston were signs of progress.
“They battled,” Atkinson said. “I thought we got down double-digits a couple times and we kept coming back, kept fighting . . . It’s a resilient group.”
The Celtics (30-10) received 28 points from Kyrie Irving and strong bench play from Marcus Morris (15 points) and Terry Rozier III (14 points, seven rebounds), but the key was their 19-7 advantage in second-chance points.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson led the Nets (13-23) with 22 points and 12 rebounds, and Caris Le Vert had another strong effort with 16 points, six rebounds and seven assists. Acy added 14 points, Carroll and Allen Crabbe each scored 12, and Dinwiddie had 10 points and nine assists.
It was the eighth loss in 10 games for the Nets, but they can look forward to a five-game homestand starting Monday against the Magic at Barclays Center.
Once again, a poor start hurt the Nets. The Celtics led by as many as 13 points before settling for a 38-28 first-quarter advantage while shooting a phenomenal 69.6 percent (16-for-23). The Nets’ defense didn’t improve much in the second, but they put together a 16-4 run that included five points apiece from LeVert and Acy to cut the Celtics’ lead to 47-46.
“There’s definitely no quit in us,” Dinwiddie said. “We have to understand how to close games and not start slow and go down double-digits. That’s when we’ll take that next step and be a good team is when we’re not always having to take the three-pointer down three with however many seconds left. That’s a tough position to be in constantly. It’s not an effective way to close games.”